West Of Loathing: One of the Year's Best Games is Made of Stick Figures
Until just very recently, I had never even heard of Kindgom Of Loathing or developer Asymmetric, which now seems like a sad oversight on my part. Out of nowhere we've now got a full-length, Western themed follow-up to that browser game, and it just may be the sleeper hit of the summer.
Sure, the gaming world is in the doldrums without any AAA big name releases until autumn arrives, but as West Of Loathing very clearly shows -- we don't even need 'em!
Saddle Up, Pardner
On the graphical front, West Of Loathing might have seriously been drawn in Microsoft Paint. The gameplay is just as simplistic as the art, with each map segment behaving like an adventure game -- peppered through with occasional combat that offers up a bare bones, turn-based RPG style.
Elements from classic cRPGs of bygone eras like Fallout are present, where you've got perks and skills to develop that can be used in dialog or various world map situations. Some are gained just by leveling, while others appear by completing tasks (like foolishly walking into cacti over and over).
The combination of six-shooters with magic along with the dusty Western setting will obviously bring to mind Wasteland 2 or Hard West, but there are none of the gameplay or graphics pitfalls from those titles, because West Of Loathing doesn't bother with anything even remotely complex or complicated.
She may only have her grandpa's brass knuckles and a bit of moxie, but she's ready to take on the whole weird west!
How Is This So Much Fun?
Not long after deciding whether to be a Cow Puncher, Beanslinger, or Snake Oiler, our gritty protagonist has left her farm life behind to discover adventure out in the west. As in any RPG, there's adventure aplenty to be found in some dusty little hamlet.
As it turns out, the local Sherf (yes, the Sherf) can't lock anyone up anymore because the last criminal to break out took the cell door with him. The Sherf is too busy practicing his chair tippin' and nappin' to go find it himself.
During the adventure I pick up the Walking Stupid perk, and now I find myself staring at my Cow Puncher as she glides, crawls, digs, flaps, flies, levitates, and cartwheels across the game world. It's a stick figure, but somehow it's more interesting than an open 3D world.
While out searching for the cell door I find myself trying to convince a skittish horse (who has seem some serious shit, man) that it should put the locoweed down and accept reality in all its harshness. When finally discovering the varmints who stole the cell door, I remember seeing a wanted poster about a bandit who steals faces, which seemed like a pointless joke. Turns out I can convince the gang that I'm that very face-stealer, letting me get the door without even pulling out my pistol.
Somewhere in all this silliness it suddenly dawns on me... I'm actually having more fun playing this ludicrous RPG parody drawn with stick people than I did with the bigger budget Wasteland 2.
There's never been a barrel labeled TNT that shouldn't be blown up!
Silly Mode: Activate!
Remember playing classic RPGs like Torment or Icewind Dale II and realizing all those seemingly-useless items did in fact have a purpose, or that places you'd been to before actually had a lot more to discover once you acquired some new item or nugget of information? That's basically the entire game with West Of Loathing, just with joke after joke after joke coming at you hard and fast.
There's a fabulous meta-ness to the jokes that somehow straddles the line between silly nonsense and legitimately being funny on multiple levels. For instance, you can wear many hats throughout the game, including a secret hard hat that... makes the game more difficult.
It's a black and white game... with a color blind mode. Locks are picked with needles, which are found by opening haystacks. "When The Cows Come Home" goes from a quaint Western colloquialism to a phrase filled with dread, as it now means flaming demon cows tore open a portal from hell.
The pun-tastic tone here is something along the lines of Discworld or the Xanth series if they were set in the old west.
Coincidentally, his name was Cactus Man before he mutated into a Cactus Man
The Bottom Line
Considering the vastly different tones, size of the development crews, and amount of money that went into them, it would be silly to try to compare West Of The Loathing to any of the AAA games that came out this year, from Resident Evil 7 to Prey to Horizon Zero Dawn.
But here's the thing -- for RPG fans who like a little parody every now and again, this tiny little indie title might be just as fun as any of those games. West Of Loathing is a testament to what you can do when you have a fun concept, solid gameplay, and enough polish on the style front.
It doesn't matter that these are literal stick figures, or that the game is entirely black and white, or that each area is tiny. It's silly, it's accessible, it's enjoyable, and I could play it all day long without getting bored.